LOS ANGELES: Don’t Be Fooled by Media’s Hype of Phony University Ranking Lists

You may have noticed that yet another one of those allegedly authoritative Top 100 rankings of world universities has managed to cut into all the heart-warming wonderful news about Syria and ISIS and Putin v. Obama and etcetera to get our attention. But this is not all to the good.

Because the choice of a college or university for our children is something we can usually do something about – as opposed to making Syria go away – we tend to allot these supposed authoritative rankings respect. But while a measure of attention is warranted, it would be a mistake to go overboard with religious devotion.

It’s much smarter to think for yourself.

Published by The Times Higher Education (THE) magazine, out of London, the World University Rankings claims to offer a comprehensive list of the world’s top universities, billing itself as “the only international university performance tables to judge world class universities across all of their core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook”.

Whew! That’s not only a whole lot of performance evaluation but also an almost impossible claim to make with total intellectual integrity. Take a look at THE’s listings just-released 2015 listings. At the top – of the whole world list! – is the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Second is Oxford and third is Stanford.

Having once been a Media Fellow at Stanford, I can tell you it is a great place – but better than Princeton (#7)? Having completed my graduate work at Princeton, I can reveal that the only way Stanford beats it is with the West Coast weather and the football team. Similarly, Caltech is undoubtedly great – it’s located just a sprinkling of freeway miles from where I live. But is it really superior to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ranked #5) by four notches? I’m just not buying that – and nor should you.

What’s more, if my son or daughter wants to study the heck out of Shakespeare or Confucius or T.S. Eliot or Rawls, no way I’m paying for Caltech – that place (and I don’t care what they say to ranking boards) is mainly for plasma physics nerds who allocate algorithms for fun. In fact, I’d do a U-turn on the freeway and try to get my kid into the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA – #16), a broad-based world-class university that does a lot of almost everything very well. (Full disclosure: I did teach there for 15 years and, it is true, I can’t tell a proton from a peanut).

There are other questionable anomalies on this Top 100 world university list. Speaking up for Asia, as I often do, do you really want me to believe that in all of sprawling Asia no university makes it until #26, after Northwestern! I do agree that #26 National University of Singapore has sterling standards (and I’ve been honored to lecture several times at the great Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which is almost as great as the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton).

But this list totally lost me when you had to plunge so deep down to find Peking University, at #42 (well lower than the University of Washington!!!); discover that the traditionally excellent Sydney University (56) and soaring Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (59) are below the Technical University of Munich (53) – huh? That Japan’s justifiably famous Kyoto University, where I taught a course in 1999, only ranks #88 – behind even Vanderbilt!! Give me a break! And South Korea’s famed Yonsei University doesn’t even make the top 100. And McMaster University does! (Ever hear of it? I think it may be in Canada.)

And I would even admit this: although a happy UCLA Bruin for so many years, I still have to say that rival USC (University of Southern California) got shafted at #68. Are they really 52 notches less good than UCLA? Well, maybe.. but… nah.

Another factor parents and their higher-ed headed children need to keep in mind is the absolute size of the college or university and whether the premier profs are often missing-in-inaction. Some kids love the big-name school with its national-TV athletics team and fancy-dan graduate departments. But other kids would rather see an actual professor, instead of poor overworked teaching assistants so many big schools throw into the educational race course like discount rental cars.

Frankly, if my kid wants to major in – say – political science (a vital subject in this global age for the struggle for power), I’m not steering him to Caltech or even Harvard (too big). I’d rather go small – aiming for a little liberal arts college like Amherst or Williams on the U.S. east coast; or for nearby Pomona or Claremont-McKenna out here on the west coast. At smaller colleges, professors not only teach the classes but also get to know students. Imagine! In fact, if I’m aiming for a solid political science education and I don’t want to travel a million miles to see my kid, I’d seriously consider Loyola Marymount, an undergraduate-focused university with a stellar polisi faculty (the chair is a Harvard Ph.D; another prof’s doctorate came from the University of California, Davis- #44 – this info being provided for you list-snobs!).

I know that for a fact because I now teach there; and my daughter graduated last year with a liberal arts degree. You can’t fool me with this phony rankings stuff!

Los Angeles based Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

See: http://www.khaleejtimes.com/editorials-columns/dont-be-fooled-by-phony-university-rankings-lists
See also: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/10/04/don-t-dwell-those-top-100-lists-you-leap.html

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